U.S. Customs fills key HQ positions
Smith, DiNucci have excellent rapport with freight sector.
In his first major personnel decision involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s trade mission, Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske on Thursday filled two key vacancies with highly regarded officials who have been instrumental in the past eight years in successfully implementing cargo security and modernization projects.
Kerlikowske, who took office in March, named Brenda Smith to be assistant commissioner for international trade. She essentially replaces Richard DiNucci, who was selected as director of cargo conveyance and security in the Office of Field Operations. DiNucci has served as acting assistant commissioner for trade for the past year, following the departure of Al Gina. He previously was deputy assistant commissioner.
OFO is the most visible part of Customs that deals with trade because its officers implement policies at ports of entry and are responsible for inspecting containers, trucks, rail cars and air shipments for potential security threats and regulatory violations.
The Office of International Trade develops policies related to trade enforcement, including intellectual property rights, free trade agreement rules and anti-dumping orders; simplifies compliance requirements; and communicates legal requirements to the trade. It also works to create partnership programs with industry to streamline the flow of legitimate shipments.
Both Smith and DiNucci are returning to their roots.
Smith has spent the past two years as executive director of the Automated Commercial Environment Business Office, helping to further stabilize the star-crossed information technology program on which all agency functions will be based in the near future. Before that, she was executive director for trade policy and programs in International Trade.
DiNucci has had extensive experience in OFO. He was the program manager for the Importer Security Filing implemented five years ago to enhance cargo security through the analysis of advance data and also was in charge of the Secure Freight Initiative, a pilot program for scanning all U.S.-bound containers at select overseas ports. In 2010, he was moved into the Cargo and Conveyance Security unit.
News of the leadership changes was well received by members of the trade community, who complemented the professionalism and skill of both officials.
“We are very pleased with the job she did with ACE implementation and reaching out to the trade on the International Trade Data System, so we think she’s going to be an outstanding partner” for transportation intermediaries, Geoffrey Powell, president of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America and vice president of operations for C.H. Powell Co., said.
DiNucci “really understands operations, and is also very aware of the issues that Cargo and Conveyance Security is dealing with. I think he’s a great person for that job,” he added.
Susan Kohn Ross, an international trade counsel in the Los Angeles office of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, said, “I think a lot of people will be thrilled. There’s a good deal of sentiment and respect for them: They are fair, they listen and then they make a decision.”
Three-and-a-half years ago then-Commissioner Alan Bersin switched Daniel Baldwin from assistant commissioner for international trade to the head of cargo and conveyance security in an effort to bring more understanding of trade policy and industry needs into Field Operations, which was considered by many as overly focused on security. He also brought Gina over from OFO to head International Trade to put some operational enforcement experience within that office.
While Baldwin was technically moved backward on the organizational chart, it appears that DiNucci is being groomed for a future top role.
Baldwin retired last year.
DiNucci’s work on both sides of fence will prove valuable in bringing ongoing trade facilitation initiatives to reality in the field, industry operatives said.
He would have been equally good in the top trade role, Douglas Browning, global customs counsel for General Motors and a former deputy Customs commissioner, said. But DiNucci has a lot of experience in the cargo enforcement area, and Smith has done a lot of outreach to import/export sector in recent years, Browning added.
“I think it’s a very good move for CBP,” he said.
Lenny Feldman, a trade attorney in the Miami office of Sandler, Travis & Rosenber, said, "Both Brenda and Rich are top-notch individuals, and I think the trade will benefit greatly from their respective leadership." Feldman worked with both of them when he was an attorney with the Customs Service in the 1990s.
Trade experts downplayed the impact Smith’s transfer would have on the ACE program, which is scheduled to become the agency’s operating platform for processing imports and exports, communicating with trading companies, and supporting security functions by October 2016.
“If this occurred a year ago, I’d be a lot more concerned,” Powell said. “The plan for ACE implementation is etched in stone, and they have been meeting their deliverables.”
Browning said GM is so impressed with the recent progress of ACE that it has begun committing resources for software that will link its systems to the new filing platform.
“So this is the perfect time [to move Smith] — when they have some stability in the program and when the core deployment team is in place,” he said.
Feldman said Smith, in her new role, will help coordinate the ACE functions that fall under International Trade and help bring other government agencies into the International Trade Data System, which is being built on the back of ACE to route information to and from multiple agencies without requiring transmissions to each party.
“I think ACE will move full steam ahead with her in that role. I see Rich and Brenda working hand in hand” in bringing all the different functionalities together, he said.
Putting Smith and DiNucci in permanent positions, however, serves as a reminder of how many leadership jobs are still being filled on a temporary basis. Kevin McAleenan is the acting deputy commissioner of CBP and would fall back to his official role of assistant commissioner of field operations if the number two spot was filled. That seat is now held on a provisional basis by John Wagner. The acting deputy assistant commissioner for field operations is Chris Maston, who technically is still the executive director of operations responsible for the daily interaction with district field offices. The acting executive director of operations is Michelle James, who is listed as the director of field operations for the Seattle district.
The person holding DiNucci’s job in an acting capacity was Augustine Moore, the deputy director of field operations for trade in Chicago. And the acting head of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program is Ron May. That means that five key positions that interact with the trade on a regular basis were filled by non-permanent personnel until Thursdays announcement.
The domino effect of any new potential new appointments is illustrated by the fact that Thomas Winkowski is still listed as the deputy commissioner, even though President Obama recently made him acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, another sub-agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
On Monday, Obama nominated Sarah Saldaña, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, to be assistant secretary of homeland security in charge of ICE, although any confirmation process is likely to be pushed into next year because Congress will soon adjourn so lawmakers can focus on mid-term elections in November.
If Saldaña is confirmed in a reasonable amount of time — which isn’t guaranteed given how many times the Senate has delayed Obama nominations — then Winkowski could either retire, return to his prior post or be assigned another post within DHS.
“CBP has never done a great job at succession planning. It’s never had a clear and disciplined structure for mentoring and preparing people to fill behind other people” in a systematic way, a former high-ranking CBP official, who did not want to be identified because of ongoing business ties with the agency, said.
Ross said the more fundamental challenge for Kerlikowske is the shortage of support staff throughout the agency.
Customs has received earmarked appropriations to beef up the ranks of inspectors, but there are not enough paralegals, protest and entry processors, and import specialists to deal with protests and petitions. The lack of manpower means it can take two to four years for an importer to receive the results of a penalty challenge or classification question, she said.